Bertrand Tavernier, a French director best known in the United States for “‘Round Midnight,” the 1986 film that earned Dexter Gordon an Oscar nomination for his performance as a New York jazz musician trying to get his life and career on track in Paris, died Thursday in Sainte-Maxime, in southeastern France. He was 79.
The Institut Lumiere, a film organisation in Lyon of which he was president, posted news of his death on Facebook. The cause was not given.
Tavernier made some 30 features and documentaries and was a regular on the film festival circuit, winning the best director award at Cannes in 1984 for “A Sunday in the Country,” what Roger Ebert called “a graceful and delicate story about the hidden currents in a family” headed by an ageing painter living outside Paris.
Tavernier had worked primarily as a film critic and publicist until 1974, when he directed his first feature, “The Clockmaker of St. Paul,” the story of a man whose son is accused of murder. The movie, more character study than crime drama, quickly established him in France and drew praise overseas.
“The Clockmaker” is an extraordinary film,” Ebert wrote, “the more so because it attempts to show us the very complicated workings of the human personality, and to do it with grace, some humour and a great deal of style.”
French actor Philippe Noiret played the father in that movie. The two would work together often, and teamed up again in 1976 in another tale about a murderer, “The Judge and the Assassin,” with Noiret playing the judge. The cast also included Isabelle Huppert, who would appear in other Tavernier films.
Tavernier was soon working with international casts. “Death Watch,” a 1980 science fiction thriller, starred Harvey Keitel as a television reporter who has an eye replaced with a camera so that he could surreptitiously film the last days of a woman — played by Romy Schneider — who seems to have a terminal disease.
“’Round Midnight” featured a cast full of musicians — not only Gordon, a noted saxophonist, but also Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter and others, including Herbie Hancock, who won an Oscar for his original score.
“The screenplay, by Mr. Tavernier and David Rayfiel, is both rich and relaxed, with a style that perfectly matches the musicians’,” Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times. “Some of the talk may well be improvised, but nothing sounds improvised, but nothing sounds forced, and the film remains effortlessly idiosyncratic all the way through.”
Bertrand Tavernier was born April 25, 1941, in Lyon to Rene and Ginette Tavernier. His father was a noted writer and poet. In a 1990 interview with The Times, Tavernier described an isolated boyhood.
“My childhood was marked by loneliness because my parents didn’t get along well,” he said. “And it’s coming out in every movie. I’ve practically never had a couple in my films.”
He mentioned the impact of his hometown.
“It’s a very secretive city,” he explained. “My father used to say that in Lyon you learn that you must never lie but always dissemble, and it’s part of my films. The characters are often oblique in their relationships. Then there will be brief moments when they reveal themselves.”
He was interested in film from a young age, and his early jobs in the film business included press agent for Georges de Beauregard, a noted producer of the French New Wave. He also wrote about film for Les Cahiers du Cinema and other publications, and he continued to write throughout his career — essays, books and more. As a film historian, he was known for championing movies, directors and screenwriters who had been treated unkindly by others.
In the foreword to Stephen Hay’s 2001 biography, “Bertrand Tavernier: The Film-maker of Lyon,” Thelma Schoonmaker, the noted film editor and widow of director Michael Powell, credited Tavernier with resurrecting the reputation of Powell’s “Peeping Tom,” which was condemned when it was released in 1960 but is now highly regarded by many cinephiles.
“Bertrand’s desire to right the wrongs of cinema history has a direct connection to the themes of justice that pervade his own films,” she wrote.
Thierry Fremaux, the director of the Cannes festival and of the Institut Lumiere, said Tavernier had been tireless in his advocacy.
“Bertrand Tavernier has built the body of work that we know, but he built something else: being at the service of the history of cinema, of all cinemas,” Fremaux said by email. “He wrote books, he edited other people’s books, he did an extraordinary amount of film interviews, tributes to everyone he admired, film presentations.”
“I’m not sure there are any other examples in art history of a creator so dedicated to the work of others,” he added.
Tavernier’s own films sometimes set personal stories amid sweeping moments of history. “Life and Nothing But” (1989), set in 1920, had as a backdrop the search for hundreds of thousands of French soldiers still missing in action from World War I. “Safe Conduct” (2002) was about French filmmakers who worked during the German occupation in World War II.
But Tavernier wasn’t interested in historical spectacle for its own sake.
“Often people come to me and say you should do a film about the French Resistance, but I say this is not a subject, this is vague,” he told Variety in 2019. “Tell me about a character who was one of the first members of the Resistance and who did things that people later in 1945 say must be judged as crimes. Then I have a character and an emotion that I can deal with.”
His survivors include his wife, Sarah, and two children, Nils and Tiffany Tavernier.